Charitable but unequal

Observations on discrimination

Earlier this year, a gay man was refused employment as a lay chaplain with the Catholic charity Apostleship of the Sea, which works for the welfare of seafarers. The man had been offered the job but the offer was withdrawn after AoS discovered he was in a gay relationship - even though there is no evidence that his sexual orientation would affect his work for the charity.

AoS can get away with this blatant discrimination because the government has exempted religious bodies from new legislation against homophobic discrimination in the workplace.

Under current charity law, organisations are not required to ensure equal opportunities as a condition of securing charitable status. They are, like AoS, free to discriminate in many circumstances in their employment and service-provision policies. A charity-run school is, for example, legally entitled to reject pupils who are Hindu or HIV-positive.

The Home Office wants to keep it this way. It opposes my amendment to the draft Charities Bill which would make equal opportunities a mandatory requirement. Silly me. I assumed the government might want to signal that discrimination by charities is unacceptable. Not so.

At present, to qualify as a charity, an organisation must perform a "public benefit". This test of public benefit should, in my view, include a duty to ensure equality for staff and clients. After all, how can a charity fulfil its legal obligation to provide a public benefit if it discriminates against sections of the public?

Charitable status should be a privilege, not a right. No organisation that discriminates should be entitled to the tax breaks and other perks accorded to charities. It is time the state ceased rewarding organisations that are not equal-opportunity employers and service providers. They should lose their charitable status.

Defending its opposition to reform, the Home Office says a ban on discrimination would undermine the good work of charities established to help social groups with particular needs, such as women or Sikhs. Not true. The same exemptions that exist in the sex- and race-discrimination laws would also apply to charities. Restricting a charity's services to a specific social group would be lawful where the purpose and effect were to remedy disadvantage and exclusion.

A charity set up to support black ex-prisoners would, for example, be permitted to retain its racially exclusive focus. There would be no compulsion to extend its services to white ex-prisoners. But it would not be allowed to discriminate against black ex-prisoners because they were, for instance, transsexual or members of the Nation of Islam.

The Home Office also argues that removing charitable status would "pena-lise the charity's service users". Pardon? Surely, it is discrimination by charities that penalises potential beneficiaries. The duty to adopt equal-opportunities policies would result in fewer people being penalised, not more. All but a handful of charities would adapt rather than lose their charitable status. Very few people, if any, would suffer. Many more would gain.

The government seems to be saying the ends justify the means. Even if an organisation is doing good works that are of public benefit, does it not matter how these good works are achieved, or whether they involve discrimination against sections of society?

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: His personal biography can be viewed here:

This article first appeared in the 28 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, A dangerous time to be a Jew